Give them the freedom and they will surprise you.

So today will be one of the proudest moments as a father and my son could hardly sleep last night and I think the first time he has got up early since the last holidays.  For a number of years he has watched other children get up and collect the school’s coveted prize the Head Teachers Award and around 6 months ago he made the announcement that “Dad I am going to win that, I just need to find out what I need to do to get it”.  I have to be honest I didn’t think he would be able to achieve it, but he had his mind made up and during a recent parents meeting he made the announcement to his teacher’s surprise and asked what he needed to do.  He was given a list of things he needed to improve upon and off he went on his journey.

Well today he has achieved his aim and my wife and I are going to see him accept his award with the biggest smile on his face.  I can say without fear of contradiction that this was all his own work.  He made the decision to aim for the award, he found out what he needed to do, he planned it and then put the plan into action.  Not one other person can take any credit for what he has achieved it has all been done on his own.

This has got me thinking does this self motivation cross domains, can what he has done in an education setting cross into sport and vice versa, is this motivation an innate or genetic ability or is it a learned behaviour?  I am not a geneticist or a scientist so I will not go into any depth mostly because I don’t know but also because it will send you off to sleep but I will select from some anecdotal evidence.

My son comes to just about all my sessions and anyone who also comes will know we work from a very athlete centred approach whereby we ask children as young as 5 to think for themselves rather than having a coach hold all the power we like to delegate this power to the players.  With the youngest of children this might mean allowing them to set their own pitches, pick their own teams, set their own rules to the older ones analysing performance through video feedback and setting their own detailed plans for improvement. Through this self analysis my son spoke with me just a little before his decision to win the Head Teachers Award about his weaknesses in his football.  He had realised that due to his size he was being pushed off the ball and also that his burst of speed needed work. He then asked if he could have a personal trainer to help him work on these areas and would it be okay if he worked with the older lads so he could get used to it.  We agreed with everything and off he went, has it made a difference, probably too early tell and actually so what if it hasn’t this is not the important issue, what is important is that he is thinking for himself.

It is only now that I have made the link between the two.  Could it be that because he is constantly in an environment where he has to take responsibility for his own learning in sport that this has crossed to his education? Could it be that he is just genetically pre-disposed to being self regulated.  Having spoken to someone who knows a thing or two about genetics his comments were “you may have a genetic advantage or indeed disadvantage (thinking about a pre-disposition to certain diseases) but without the correct environment these genetics cannot flourish.” In other words you may be the fastest person on the planet but if you are not allowed to run what good is that.

Having looked at the literature and in particular Gamser’s work in this area although not 100% conclusive there are certainly strong links being found between children taking their self regulation skills used in sport to their education and vice versa.  Furthermore, she has found that an overwhelming number of elite athletes are also high academic performers and that one of the main reasons for this elite performance is the ability to self regulate.  But caution has been made that such self regulatory behaviour will generally only show in an “inspiring environment where individual goal setting is allowed”. Seems to be a link here between the literature and the views concerning genetics.

As a grass roots coach, can we use this in our domain as although we do work with some elite or aspiring elite athletes the majority of will not likely become such?  Not only can we use this approach I think we must; otherwise we are at best missing a trick at worst denying children a very important life skill. Lets not forget as a participation coaches we have a much bigger role to play than coaching sport.  How can we foster such an environment within our coaching, we must let go of the power, trust the children, inspire them, encourage them, let them make mistakes and let them learn from them. This is better known as an athlete centred approach  –  “the key to a successful athlete centred approach is one where the coach utilises this leadership style and empowers the athlete to learn and understand about their own needs and performances and takes ownership of the training regime.” (Arai, 1997).

I honestly think if we trust them enough and give them the freedom they will surprise you with the long term results.  My son has surprised me with the results of his hard work and I am off this afternoon to be the proudest dad in the room.

Pictures to follow.

Are we fostering an environment of creativity or stifling it?


Last week was my daughter’s parent’s meeting and I usually face these with fear, not because of my children underperforming or misbehaving or any other issue akin to this but because I normally have to spend the time biting my tongue and listening to how my children are not happy to being moulded into a one dimensional system that simply grooms them for the job market.

To my amazement and joy instead her teacher spent the whole time talking about how creative my daughter was, what a wonderful imagination she had but she only wished she would share it more with the group to help inspire the rest of the group to be more like her.  My daughter will often write stories or dances or make up plays and the teacher has now asked that she bring them in and show the class to see if the rest of the group would bring in what they find of interest and make the whole class a better learning experience for others and that through this each child might find their passion.  She then made an apology that since she has taken over the class they have spent more time in practical work and separating the class into groups and getting them to come up with their own challenges in subjects they find both interesting and also challenging. Apology, are you kidding me this sounds like classroom heaven, I asked if I could come back to school, I was not even offended when she said you are small enough to get away with it.


Last night she had to do a small piece of homework on Red Kites, the note in her homework book was remembering what we talked about today can you write a page of what you know about Red Kites? She sat there for about ten minutes writing a new song and when questioned she said I wasn’t really paying attention to what happened in class I was bored so I am not sure what to write. Now some might rush her off to the nearest behavioural clinic and diagnose her with ADHD or tell her off for not listening in class but she is 8 and cant be bothered to listen to what others know she wants to find out herself. So instead she spent the next hour and a half finding out everything she could about Red Kites on the internet copying and pasting and in the end she produced 23 pages of work. I think she could probably join the RSPB now, and is one of the UK’s leading experts in the subject. But not because of what she has been told what to do but because she has been given the freedom and inspiration to go and do it herself using the best possible tools for the job.

Can we use these tools in the coaching arena, are we there to inspire children to come up with the best results THEY can or simply replicate what the coach or manager knows? Should a coaching session be totally structured by the manager only looking for a narrow outcome or should it allow for multiple outcomes. Should we stand there at the front and tell them everything we know or do we first find out everything they know and challenge them to find out more? Do we teach new skills through detailed instruction or does can you get the ball from A to B and watch how they solve it get a better response? Most importantly what do they prefer and are all children different and can you adapt each session to allow for these differences in children? Our job like a teacher’s is to inspire the children to fall in love with the game, to want to practice and play and try new things without fear of failure or ridicule if they go wrong.

If as a coach we only allow them to do what we know we will only get replicas of what we know, if we coach a narrow outcome we will get a narrow outcome but if you allow players to come up with their own answers to exciting problems to solve you will be amazed with the results. It might be messy and chaotic and it might take some time to get results but what you will get is players who will think for themselves, take responsibility for their actions and hopefully take this into other areas of their lives.

Alternatively we can do what we have always done and get what we have always got.

It is the start of the Trial Season in Grass Roots


So with the Grass Roots Season nearly over clubs are already starting to look to next season and with this anticipation comes the prospect of the trials.  Due to the many formats in mini soccer and youth football, 5 a side, 7 a side, 9 a side and 11 a side nearly every year clubs need to attract more players and add to their squads.  Some do by joining teams together, some through referrals and some through dare I say it poaching, and some through trials.

Having had a number of parents ask me recently when I am holding my trials for my U10 mini soccer teams I have started to question the use of trials.  The parents have looked at me kind of strange when I state that I don’t hold trials, even though I reason that “what can I learn about my players in a few hours that I don’t already know.”  Anyway it seems I am certainly in the minority on this one so I have started to question myself, perhaps I am missing a trick here?

I have therefore posted on Twitter and Facebook the question who is holding trials and why?  I have had very little answer to this but those that have answered have generally supported my original thoughts in that, it is what we have always done when we need new players.

This got me thinking even more about the trial process and my thoughts on talent identification as a whole.

The top clubs in the world spend millions and millions of Pounds/Euros every year on talent identification attempting to bring the best and most gifted children into their academies.  Whilst there are some success stories I think we can say that as a whole the academy system has not been a raging success in identifying giftedness and nurturing it into talented adult performers.  So with this in mind how can Grass Roots Coaches be expected to perform any better and thus if this is the case are trials of any benefit at all?

In my experience a trial at a grass roots club usually takes 1-3 weeks with coaches watching a number of games.  This is a very small snapshot of performance at a given moment in time.  It neither confirms the players giftedness over a pro-longed period  nor does it give much indication of the opportunity to develop into talent.  In many cases (I would actually say most) it is simply an illustration of that person’s maturity at that given time and thus possibly effectiveness as a player not giftedness.

I am often asked by parents, spectators and other coaches do you have any potential superstars, or who do you think is going to make it. My answer is always the same “I have not got a clue, too difficult to say”. What I would say though is that if I was picking a player who might make it I would not be just looking at their ability today but instead at a number of social and psychological & environmental factors.

Daniel Coyle’s Thoughts:

Looking deeper into the trial process it is clear that lots of clubs use the ‘trial’ as another word for an open day to welcome children to their club and as aforementioned to attract players where there is a deficiency in playing numbers.  If they attract too many they try to accommodate them but all too often there is a finite level of resources, but still help the children find other clubs. But then there are some clubs it appears use the trial in the true sense of the word even as young as U6/7/8.  Every year they start a fresh and each player must trial again for their right to play in the team and children from across the region trial for places in the ‘top clubs’ with promises being made to entice them.

This throws up even more questions, what are they looking for, what are the motives, what are the long term goals, for whose benefit is this?  Research into children’s motives in participating in sport are very clear – enjoyment, fun, learning new skills, being with their friends. So does this trial process support the research findings of why children participate in sport or run contrary to it?

As the trial process is simply a glimpse of performance and as a result of non-linear and fast changing development patterns of children what happens next season when the promising young player may not be so much quicker than his peers, is no longer the strongest player on the park or has hit a growth spurt and lost co-ordination.  Will he lose out in the trial process to the next batch of trialists and can no longer play football with his friends or work with the coach he has built the relationship with? Therefore is the trialing of young children just a conveyor belt where at the beginning of each season the perceived most able children are brought in at the expense of others?

As the result of this process often culminates in positive on field performances it can therefore be seen as a successful way to conduct recruitment of children to Grass Roots Teams. But could this actually be viewed as poor process good result (or poor process good short term result).  There is after all a greater responsibility on coaches other  than to win more games than you lose and this needs to be kept in mind at every step when working with the youngest age groups.

Having thought long and hard about the trial process I have decided against it for me my teams. For me it just does not fit in with my philosophy and the reasons why I coach at the 7-11 age group but I wish all children undergoing trials this summer the best of luck.

As always all comments welcome.